Onsen in Japan

Me, the Mountains and a Dozen Nude Japanese Men

Onsen hot springs are as ubiquitous in Japan as stupidly cute things and cherry blossoms, so to the outside observer, my desire to find and stay in the best onsen in Japan might have seemed pointless. For me, however, it was as much a want as a need: My past three weeks in Japan have been extraordinary, but they’ve also been extraordinarily exhausting. I need the best onsen in Japan, stat.

Before I left on my trip, my online research suggested than a property called Takaragawa Onsen, located in the foothills of the Japanese Alps about 90 minutes north of Tokyo by Shinkansen, might be the best Japanese onsen ryokan. Boasting four outdoor hot springs, a ryokan that straddles a river of the same name (and, I would later find out, throngs of nude Japanese men), Takaragawa certainly fits the bill from an aesthetic perspective.

Looks are very important to me, but I’m happy to report after enjoying some extraordinary relaxation here the past couple nights, Takaragawa is much more than just a pretty face. Whether you’re also in search of the top onsen in Japan, or you simply want to know why I’m so over the moon about this place that I felt compelled to write a post, just reading about my experience at Takaragawa Onsen will chill you out.

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The Ryokan

Most onsen in Japan are just, well, onsen, which is to say hot springs. When I was traipsing through the ancient cedars of Yakushima Island, for example, I would end each day at a local one, paying 200 yen to the old woman waiting in the entrance as I passed by, then relaxing to my heart’s content – but never for the night.

At Takaragawa Onsen, on the other hand, the hot spring itself (which I’ll talk about in just a minute) is merely the unifying attraction. Although I suppose you could simply bathe for the day, you’d be missing out on another amazing aspect of being here, which is staying in the attached ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn.

The main building at Takaragawa dates back to 1955, which gives these traditionally-constructed and designed rooms an even more rustic feel. Featuring floor mattresses laid out on tatami mats, with indoor sitting areas that look out over the river, the rooms here are simple, but they’re exquisitely comfortable as well, all part of why I think this might be the best onsen in Japan.


The Onsen

The onsen at Takaragawa very much deserves its reputation as the best onsen in Japan. Or, I should say, their: Four outdoor onsen are available here, three co-ed and one for women only. Regardless of which onsen you choose, or how many nude Japanese woman or men accompany you, all feature relaxing stone bottoms and walls, traditional Japanese statues and wooden awnings to shield you from the rain and snow that fall here much of the year.

Yes, you heard me right: It’s cold here most of the year. Right now, in late April, it hovers around 12-13ºC during the day. There are no leaves on the trees; there’s still plenty of snow on the ground. It might sound crazy that a sun worshipper like me would even consider coming here, but there’s something about your body being submerged in scalding hot water that makes Jack Frost’s nose-nipping slightly more tolerable.

Another great thing about the onsen here at Takaragawa is that it’s open 24 hours, which means that if you’re a night owl or an early bird, you can essentially enjoy a private onsen in Japan while everyone else is sleeping. Many onsen in Japan have short operating hours, which means that…well, let’s just say I hope you don’t mind being naked with dozens of elderly Japanese people. Not saying I do, but privacy is nice!

The Food

Speaking of privacy, let’s talk about the dining situation at Takaragawa, shall we? In spite of its modest price (for a Japanese onsen spa in the mountains, mind you – it’s still expensive for the typical backpacker budget), Takaragawa affords guests some incredible luxuries, such as private dining rooms and microbrewed sake. This, of course, says nothing about the fantastic food at the best onsen in Japan.

Although I spent just a couple nights at Takaragawa, I felt like I took a graduate-level course in Japanese cuisine, whether I was enjoying crispy seafood tempura with green tea salt, preparing shabu-shabu and grilled fish right at my table or enjoying cold dishes like pickled umeboshi plum and, of course, sashimi, all served kaiseki style in a private dining room.

How to Get to Takaragawa Onsen

Even if you don’t end up agreeing with me that Takaragawa Onsen is the best onsen in Japan, it’s undoubtedly the best onsen near Tokyo. And it is very near Tokyo, to the extent that I often recommend it as a last stop on the custom Japan itineraries I plan for travelers—many head straight from Takaragawa to Haneda or Narita airports.

From Tokyo Station, you’ll want to ride a Shinkansen MaxTanigawa northward to Jomo-Kogen, where shuttle buses to Takaragawa Onsen (you’ll need to reserve your spot at the time of booking) depart a couple of times per day. Depending on the location of your hotel in Tokyo, door-to-door travel time should be under three hours.

The Bottom Line

When I fly back to United States tomorrow, it will be with a very heavy heart. Japan is a spectacular country in every sense of the word, a theme that will carry through in the rest of the articles I post over the next couple weeks. But I have to say: Staying at what might well be the best onsen in Japan softened the blow of leaving the Land of the Rising Sun ever so slightly.

Leave Your Daily Hell   Filed under: Japan

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is the author of 1063 posts on Leave Your Daily Hell. Robert founded Leave Your Daily Hell in 2010 so that other travelers would have an entertaining, reliable source of information, advice and inspiration at their fingertips. Want to travel more often? Subscribe to email updates today!


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Charlie April 23, 2014 at 7:23 am

Looks awesome. Love the photos, especially the girl with the umbrella on the bridge =)

Heather April 23, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Beautiful photos! I vividly remember my first Japanese onsen experience, when I got naked with a dozen Japanese women. My friend and I were the only foreign women inside and we were stared at quite intently. But the hot water felt so good after our hike on Fuji that we soon forgot all about it!

Robert Schrader April 23, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Did you hike Fuji in the winter, or do you mean less about the heat and more in terms of the soothing? Regardless, it sounds amazing.

Robert Schrader April 23, 2014 at 2:55 pm

Thanks! I was actually trying to get a shot of just the bridge when she walked past. She noticed and didn’t seem too happy but oh well.

creativenomad April 24, 2014 at 12:34 am

wow is all I can same! Could not be more jealous!

zglar April 26, 2014 at 9:31 am

Wow, the surrounding area around is beautiful and really natural. Something to look for if you’re bored of cities’s environment!

Robert Schrader April 26, 2014 at 2:27 pm

yeah, it’s a great break from urban Japan!

Robert Schrader April 26, 2014 at 2:30 pm

It’s an incredible place!

travel srilanka May 1, 2014 at 11:49 pm

wow this is a beautiful and really natural area you found. nice place. i like this place. thanks for post this.

5u5hil May 7, 2014 at 5:35 am

Mahn! You’re drop dead goregeous!!! hahaha ;P

MightyTravels May 29, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Oh wow… What an awesome place you found. I need to bookmark this for my next trip to Japan!

Love the photos. Thanks for posting this!

Torsten @ http://www.mightytravels.com

Esteban Perek October 8, 2015 at 4:53 pm

I really enjoy reading your blog and looking at the fabulous pictures. My dream is to one day visit Japan, it seems to be such a wonderful place where the latest technology mingles with respect for nature, modesty and traditions.

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